Teaching Students the Values of Nourishment, Stewardship & Community with Angela McKee-Brown

February 1, 2022

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Angela McKee-Brown brings over a decade of experience in the nonprofit sector designing and building meaningful food experiences with communities. She currently serves as the Executive Director of the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, CA. Prior to joining Edible, she served as the Director of Innovation and Strategy with San Francisco Unified School District’s Future Dining Experience where she oversaw the redesign of the school meal experience. She has also worked to expand access to market opportunities for chefs and food entrepreneurs who are women, immigrants and people of color while at the non-profit La Cocina.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. I’m John Shegerian. I’m so honored to have with us today, Angela McKee-Brown. She’s the Executive Director of the Edible Schoolyard Project. Welcome to the impact podcast, Angela.

Angela McKee-Brown: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.

John: We’re excited to have you and we’re excited to talk about all the great work you’re doing at the Edible Schoolyard Project. But before we get talking about your great work and important and impactful work, I’d love to hear a little bit about your background. Where you grew up, where you went to school and how you even got here.

Angela: Sure. So I was born and raised in Houston, Texas and after living there for most of my young adult life, I actually moved to the east coast. So I went to George Washington University for undergrad and then New York University for grad school where I received a Master’s in Food Studies. And that was the beginning of my entry into the food world. And so I’ve been working in the space for quite a few years since then.

John: How did you come to the Executive Director position at the Edible Schoolyard Project and when did you get involved there?

Angela: I’ve been in this position for the last four years. I began due to a special initiative that was focused on our pledge to public education, which is about redesigning the school food system here in the state of California. So thinking about the farmers and the ranchers who were procuring[?] the food from, getting universal free access to students for that meal program and then thinking about the cafeteria as a place for learning. And so, prior to joining the Edible Schoolyard Project, I was actually working within San Francisco Unified School District on a special initiative that was focused on redesigning and reimagining the school food system. And so we were able to leverage grant funding to do 18 pilot sites within the district. So redesigning cafeterias, working on staff development as well as thinking about the school lunch menu. And from those pilot sites, we were able to secure bond funding that allowed for the beginning of the redesigning of the school food system in San Francisco Unified. That work primed me for the work at Edible Schoolyard. But then as I joined the organization, there were opportunities to continue to grow and grow my work within the organization.

John: It’s always interesting to understand what informs someone like you who does important work like this that’s not typically highly visible. When you were growing up, was this something that was on your mind? Were you interested in going into the food industry as a whole that’s why you study what you did in NYU[?]? Were there other things going on with regards to how you were raised in terms of your politics and culture and other things that brought you to this position?

Angela: That’s a fantastic question. So, you know, I was raised in my mother’s kitchen. I was always by her side learning to cook, learning her recipes. Every night, she made sure she made dinner. And she would cook it all from scratch. One of her favorite things was to host family over for dinner. She taught me a lot about what it meant to gather at the table and how you can build community, have conversations build relationships around the table. That was what birth my love of food. I love to eat and that’s also another thing. I love to eat but through that experience and then really, with the cafeteria piece itself like I never really appreciate it, eating in the cafeteria and I never felt like I belonged in that space and never knew where to sit, never knew what to eat. And that’s always been something that was just… why is it this way? I never thought it would influence my life so much but then through grad school, I began to work in farmers markets, began to meet farmers, understand where our food comes from, who’s growing our food, the different systems that move our food from the farmer to our plate. That’s the distributors, the trucks, the grocery stores, the farmer’s markets, all these various things and began to realize the food system is way more complicated than just a restaurant or a grocery store. I found that to be fascinating because it whetted, not only my love of food but my love of culture, my love of people and just understanding who we are by what we eat. I think my mother’s kitchen is what really has informed this work for me, but it also has just been informed through lived experiences as well.

John: When you got involved with the Edible Schoolyard Project was your mom still alive?

Angela: Unfortunately, no, she had passed away at that point. She did get to see me begin my work. I started this in the Bay Area, a nonprofit incubator called ‘La Cocina’ and it’s a kitchen incubator that’s focused on supporting women of color and immigrant women in launching food businesses. The idea that we all get to do what we love to do and make a living doing that. She did get a chance to see me enter into this space [crosstalk] but unfortunately, she never got to see me at Edible.

John: Prior to joining the Edible Schoolyard Project when you said that you wanted to reimagine a broken system. Explain what voids and broken links that you saw that needed filling of the gaps?

Angela: So, when we think about school food, in particular, I’ve often opened up events being like, think about a food memory – something that has been a beautiful experience in your life. What did that mean to you? And people share all these gorgeous stories and then I follow up with the question of: “So, how many of you thought about school lunch?” I have yet to get a yes to that question. And so that again, kind of this exploration of – so, what is it about school food? And the thing is, is that I fully believe in this program, I think serves and needs a very big need within our communities. However, when you look at funding within school districts, the cafeteria is one of the often overlooked spaces for funding. So it’s often under-invested in. So it’s not the most welcoming space physically, or aesthetically speaking. And then we think about school food service workers, their salaries and such. They’re not necessarily paid. What they should be paid in terms of valuation of that work. And then just access to the types of food that are being provided to our students. So, there are many elements of this but with the mindset that… there’s a huge opportunity here and the people who serve our kids love what they do and they do really meaningful work and I find it’s my job to uplift them and support them and support our kids and communities as well.

John: I am on your beautiful website. It’s edibleschoolyard.org for our listeners and viewers and readers that want to go see more about what you’re doing – there is a lot of color, there is a lot of information. Explain a little bit about setting it up by explaining, sharing your mission. What is the mission of the Edible Schoolyard Project?

Angela: So the Edible Schoolyard project was founded 25 years ago by chef and restauranteur, Alice Waters with a mission of providing meaningful hands-on learning experiences, in gardens, kitchens and cafeterias that connect children to nature, food, and each other. The idea is that you can have a math class in the garden. You can have a history class in the kitchen. Learning food can prompt learning and so we use these informal learning spaces as educational resources.

John: Got it. And so since you joined, how far have you moved the ball? And are you on the schedule that you wanted to be? Or is it a different landscape from the time you work out a plan at your kitchen table or desk to the time you get to implement your vision?

Angela: That’s a great question. I will say that the organization is actually evolved quite a bit over the last few years and that’s in response primarily to the pandemic. Two years ago, schools began to close. And that was the moment that I don’t think any of us imagined could happen. I think it sent us all into a place of ambiguity and so from there, we actually had an opportunity to write a new curriculum. And so we actually drafted two curriculum: understanding organic and cooking with curiosity. So cooking with curiosity is a kitchen-based curriculum. And then understanding the organic is meant for the garden. The idea is that these curriculum are meant for – not just a teacher to teach the students, but something an older sibling or a caregiver, or a teacher could use to provide learning opportunities for kids inside the school building or at home.

That was the biggest evolution of our organization is that we moved from providing resources for teachers at school to providing resources for parents and caregivers at home. And what we saw over these last few years is that- we’ve been around for 25 years, we’ve had a robust library of resources and curriculum and over those 25 years, those resources have been downloaded 35,000 times. In the last two years, those two new curriculum resources have been downloaded over 100,000 times. We met a need that became present at that moment. And we’re able to really be in service to our community.

John: Let me understand, let’s just go over the math again. So for the first 23 years, 35,000 downloads. But then, in the last two years during this tragic pandemic period, three times the amount of downloads just in the last two years.

Angela: Yeah, a hundred thousand downloads. It shows there was a need and we made sure that during this time we didn’t pull back, we leaned in and started producing resources based on what we were hearing from the community and this new opportunity.

John: How many geographies do you cover right now as the Edible Schoolyard Project and how big do you imagine it can be in the future?

Angela: So just our organization, we support a network of over 5,800 programs here in the United States and around the world. I just recently finished a training program for Edible Schoolyard Japan which is a really robust program throughout Japan at different school sites in Japan. That 5800 is just a small piece of folks who we are supporting through our resources. We offer that free online curriculum, we offer online training. We used to be able to do training in person but now we’re actually reaching more educators and caregivers through the online training process. When we say 5800, I think that’s one piece of this larger network of organizations that were part of that are providing educational opportunities in gardens and kitchens.

John: Of course[?], Angela we’ve got the privilege of living during this internet explosion, the technological revolution, and the marketization of information. How does that bode in terms of you spreading the word and spreading your curriculum in the years to come?

Angela: It’s really interesting because we’re an organization that’s focused on hands-on learning, right? We want you outdoors. We don’t necessarily want you in front of a computer screen but we’ve come to understand is that through effective communication and outreach, we can reach so many people because of technology through these online platforms and we’re trying to find creative ways to engage that way, you can get to your screen, have a moment, but then be inspired to go outside or be inspired to go to your kitchen because you’ve learned something you’ve been provoked or you’ve been reminded about how beautiful that experience can be.

John: That’s fascinating. As the executive director, in essence, you’re the CEO of the Edible Schoolyard Project. How many employees do you have underneath you that you need to manage, besides also reimagining, how schoolyard, and how schools are done and the eating experience and the food experience is happening as well?

Angela: I have 17 incredible folks, we’re kind of a small organization but we’re small but mighty. My team is phenomenal and I support them with day-to-day needs as well as larger visioning work.

John: I’ve learned over the years, especially, since the advent of the internet that you don’t have to have a big organization to make a huge impact.

Angela: Yeah. Well, thank you. The team is incredible. I couldn’t have done any of this without them.

John: So to me as a leader, that sounds very manageable. You don’t get overwhelmed with the management side so you can still do the creative work of making the program better and evolving it.

Angela: I do my routine check-ins and we have one-on-ones and it’s really important for me to know my team, know what’s going on in their lives because then we can kind of adjust our work in order to make sure we have work-life balance, especially now I’m very, very, very focused on finding what brings them joy and that’s actually how a lot of our work is shifted because at the start of the pandemic, I sat down with each team member and I was like, “What will bring you the most joy and enable you to come to work every day, feeling as though you had a purpose?” And from that, I started to hear- “Well, I can do this and I can do this.” And so, I thought about those skills and talents and shape them in such a way that would allow for us to accomplish our mission but then allow them to themselves as much as possible.

John: If you just showed in us, you’re in for a treat. We’ve got Angela McKee-Brown with us. She’s Executive Director of the Edible Schoolyard Project and you can find Angela and her colleagues in the important work they’re doing at edibleschoolyard.org. Your mom informed you as to the importance of fresh food made daily done in a family setting, everyone at the table together. Who else has informed you, who else has been a hero to you or someone that you have aspired to be or learn from both – you might not have to have met them, but you could have met him as well over the course of your career?

Angela: That is a fantastic question. Oh gosh, there are so many people who’ve inspired me and that I’ve learned from, and I think when I think about this work, in particular, our founder is Alice Waters. She’s the chef and restauranteur of Chez Panisse. She has helped inform the slow food movement here in the United States and just was the person who thought of the Edible Schoolyard Project. Her approach to food, to farmers, and to learning has been really inspirational to me. We have the saying at Edible about beauty as the language of care. And then the way I’ve learned that to be is that beauty doesn’t have to cost a million dollars. Beauty can be how a flower grows in a garden. A plate of food can be beautiful, a taste can be beautiful, a sound can be beautiful. And prior to joining this organization, I don’t know that I had those same relationships with beauty. That’s something that Alice has really informed in my work as well as in my life, it’s just this greater appreciation for nature and for food in a beautiful way. And then, in addition, I hadn’t really talked to a farmer much before joining this organization. Alice is all about sourcing from the farmer and knowing your farmer and knowing where your food comes from if you’re able to. I’ve talked to so many farmers who’ve inspired me, they are some of the most kind and generous people. And so that has really motivated me when I work because I want to build connections and access for these incredible folks who exist in our communities.

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John: Well, you’re in a great state and you’re in a great area geographically speaking, if you’re going to want to mix with farmers, so how much time in terms of your day being a limited resource? How much of your day is spent in front of a computer or on a phone and how much of your day gets to be in schools and with farmers actually at their farms or touring some sort of food supply business?

Angela: I would say pre-pandemic, my day was… I was really on the move quite a bit. I’d either be down at the school campus – so at the kitchen or the garden and then back at the office, and then potentially taking a trip out to a farm or going to talk with a partner organization or going to visit a cafeteria. I was moving around quite a bit and then of course with the pandemic shelter-in-place, you’re seeing my home in the background. My work kind of evolved more to being on the screen, but we did a program in our sister campus in Stockton, where we were buying food from farmers in the region for an organic food box program and it’s something we continue to do this day. That was really wonderful because I got to speak to farmers almost on a daily basis because you’re either placing orders or trying to figure out what’s being grown or what the crop plan was, or just asking them to introduce us to someone else so we could continue to diversify the foods that were in that box. I have an incredible job so it’s really diverse in terms of activities on a daily basis.

John: Angela, I’m sure you go home like all of us and have tough days or go home and some days – you’re just… it’s a frustrating day, but I don’t think you ever go home and say today was a boring day.

Angela: No, not at all. I feel very fortunate that I have a job that allows me to find great joy every day and the work I do.

John: Before we talk about the future of your organization and your vision post-Covid, talk about two major food trends and how they are going to be potentially integrated into your important work. There’s one food trend of organic and there’s another food trend of plant-based eating. Share your thoughts on both of those trends and how do they converge with the impactful important work that you’re doing.

Angela: So in terms of plant-based eating, we’ve always embraced this idea that meat should be more of a condiment versus like the main on a plate and that has to do with climate change as well as just also just thinking about how a meal[?] is structured. So our kitchen at King Middle School is actually a vegetarian kitchen and all of the recipes that we produce are vegetarian recipes. When I think about plant-based, I’m thinking about whole foods. So things that are coming from the garden, that the students are then chopping up and creating into delicious dishes within our schools or our school kitchen. And then even when you think about school lunch, I think plant-based school lunch is actually a more accessible and affordable school food item and then it allows for procurement the shift and for cleaner ingredients to enter into the school lunch space.

When I think about organic, we just recently released a curriculum called, ‘Understanding Organic’ and that was meant to provide students a resource to understand this topic that can be sometimes inclusive and sometimes exclusive. We wrote this curriculum based from the students’ perspective of understanding, what organic means to them. What it means to their family, what it means to their community, what it means to their culture and utilizing that as a starting point for understanding this larger concept of farming practices, potentially labor practices as well as ancestral practices. Organic is also a huge part of our mission. Our founder, Alice is a huge champion of organic and now regenerative organic with the idea of what a regenerative organic food system could mean in terms of carbon drawdown and climate change, which is very much upon us and very much, I think, at the center of a lot of our student’s minds and of concern of what’s coming. So the idea of a regenerative organic food system is something that we’re advocating for as well as building into these future plans, which are part of the Alice Waters Institute credible education.

John: When you put together your curriculum and you’re always obviously growing your library. Do you have guest chefs or chefs of different parts from different parts of the United States of different parts of the world, give lectures that are recorded, that can be downloaded in part of your curriculum?

Angela: I don’t know that we have any of those online but we do invite guests to come and share their knowledge and wisdom with us. With our students, one of the best resources we have for online education, for adults, at least, is our Edible Ed 101 course, that’s a course we do in partnership with UC Berkeley, University of California at Berkeley and we bring thought leaders from across the country and around the world to that space to talk about food and share new ideas, examine ideas and hopefully prompt broader thinking about what our food system can be.

John: Who right now is a thought leader in the food space that you’re following and you’re finding to be very relevant to the times that we live in right now?

Angela: I recently listen to this podcast called, ‘Finding Our Way’ it’s by Prentis Hemphill and they had a guest on there named Rowan White. She’s an indigenous leader in Northern California and she’s talking about the food system through the lens of seeds[?] and the importance of seeds. And how she told not only the life of plants, but they also hold our cultures and our shared histories and knowledge. She’s been really inspirational to me as I think about… I think often it can be very easy to be broad when you think about the food system, but when you bring it back down to seed and the meaning that a seed can hold for so many, she has been huge in terms of expanding my thought process.

John: Interesting. What farming insight did you get that you didn’t expect when you visited farms or farmers during the last four years of your tenure?

Angela: Oh gosh, that’s a good question. I always think about how this farmer named Casey, she runs leisure ranches and just it’s just right outside of Stockton and I don’t think I realized how difficult it is to be a farmer. It’s not an easy profession by any means, not only are you having to deeply understand nature and how the seasons are moving, how the rain and just following[?] but you also have to know how to run a business. You also have to understand supply chains, you also have to understand how to market and it is a complex job and it is a big job. It just gave me so much appreciation for what they do and what their mastery has to be because it’s not just growing food it’s a very complicated responsibility.

John: I sit here in my office in my headquarters in Fresno, California taping the show with you today, I’m surrounded by farmers. As you know, this is the ag belt, maybe of the United States here in the Central Valley. And as you just said, everything you just said in terms of factors that they have to deal with including as you already know, climate change and the vicissitudes of weather and because we’re in California, the vicissitudes of water supply, [crosstalk] It’s just fascinating me how difficult it is to be a good farmer. [crosstalk] Have you ever tried your way down here? Have you ever visited the Central Valley down in the Fresno area?

Angela: I have been down in Fresno once for a conference, the Organic Association had a conference down there. I was fortunate to go with Alice. I didn’t get to tour or anything, but I did… I didn’t stay on the highway the whole time. I definitely was taking back roads to different farms.

John: Well, if you ever come down here again, I would love to invite you, I’ll introduce you to some of my family and friends, who are farmers and grow, all sorts of different wonderful products, including raisins, and other products. I’ll love you to meet them and they can give you a first-hand tour of some of their facilities. I’ve had a chance to go in them and I’ll tell you what, it’s eye-opening like you said how complex and difficult it is to do it right.

Angela: Exactly.

John: So let’s go back to something base. You grew up in your mom’s kitchen. You’re doing this important work. Two questions for you. First of all, are you a good chef yourself? When you go home, is it door dash or do you have your own vision that you’re going to make from scratch, a nice meal for your family?

Angela: You know what? I find a lot of peace in the kitchen, so I love to cook. I love getting out a cookbook and reading a recipe and thinking about how flavors will combine and what I could do differently if I don’t have the right ingredients in my kitchen. So being able to cook at the end of the day, is actually part of my meditation practice. It gives me a chance to kind of slow down and engage in a way that’s very tactile a very sensory-based. I think I cook really well, I think my food is delicious. I haven’t had anyone say no to dinner invites so I’m assuming [crosstalk] [inaudible] what I do.

John: I’m sure it’s great. The future. [crosstalk] [inaudible] about the horizon of your very great organization, Edible Schoolyard Project.

Angela: Yes. So, as I shared we’ve been around for – we’re actually, in our 26th year now as an education nonprofit. And right now, we’re actually at this inflection point where our founder Alice Waters is beginning to partner with the UC Davis and their new initiative called, ‘Aggie Square’ where they will be building out the Alice Waters Institute for edible education. That’s going to be the future of Edible Schoolyard in the sense that we’ll still have our core campus at King Middle School as well as our sister campus in Stockton, but then we’ll have this larger connection and relationship. So you see system to thought leaders and such through the Alice Waters Institute that I think will not only allow us to provide year-round trainings for educators and Food Service workers, but also allow for a space for convening for the health space, you know, the health industry, the food space, environmental space, the arts, and kind of bring them all together in at this institute to kind of… that being dialogue and think about solutions for some of these pressing problems that we have.

John: You mentioned earlier that a school in Japan recently downloaded your curriculum. How many different countries are you affecting now in terms of schools that you impact and that are using your curriculum? Or at least letting it give them some great guidance?

Angela: There are thousands of schools around the globe who use our curriculum and then even in Japan, I believe there are either 5 or 10 different campuses that have edible Schoolyards on their campus where teachers are providing this type of education every day to students. It’s such a beautiful experience like students who maybe don’t thrive in the traditional classroom can come out to the garden but their hands in the soil, move around, talk, plant things, haul a wheelbarrow across the farm and but also learn the chemistry of compost or math while laying irrigation and it opens education up in a way that it’s super meaningful for our kids.

John: Obviously, Angela, you’re making an important difference in both your community and in the world right now doing the great work and the important work you’re doing at the Edible Schoolyard Project but you’re very young, you’ve already had some great experience. When you think about time, resources and impact that you can further make in the decades ahead, do you weigh the different opportunities of staying as a public servant and what you’re doing right now versus becoming a public servant with regards to the political world that we are faced with today? And the challenges that our seem steeper than when I was much younger and also the other opportunities of becoming an Impact entrepreneur and doing something in the food space like Ethan Brown, and so many other wonderful great entrepreneurs that are making a difference now in the food ecosystem. How do you weigh those opportunities in front of you, in terms of making the greatest impact and leaving the biggest difference as your legacy?

Angela: I will say, I’ve never been asked that question before. I’m going to have to take a moment just to kind of think that one through. I will say, the lighting is not that great in here, I do have some grace I’ve got some life in me, some years on me but that’s something I think about. I don’t necessarily think about my legacy very much. I just think quite a bit about the impact of my work and making sure that every day there has meaning, it has meaning. I get so much joy from when I see a kid be happy. You know, they try a new flavor or they… It’s something that they hadn’t understood before and seeing them light up. I understand that my work has a much broader impact. I don’t know what’s ahead of me. I’m taking[?] opportunities but I think about politics, that is its own beast. I think about the public versus private sectors. I’ve had experience in both and I think I’m open to whatever is on the horizon as long as it has meaning and brings joy.

John: That’s great. And that’s a great way of approaching life. And this is your calling for now and if you get… and you find your heart being pulled in another direction I guess in the future, you’ll follow that as well.

Angela: I mean, that’s the excitement of possibility, right? I can’t define the future but I can be intentional about the steps I take.

John: Without getting political, that’s the last thing I’ll ever like to do on the show. Are the politics of the United States though and or California combined, are they open to you and your organization and how you are reimagining food services in schools? Is it an open system or does the legacy of bureaucracy that potentially still exist get in your way sometimes?

Angela: I think there’s a lot of inherited practices that exist within our systems that are challenging and every day I speak to public servants who want the best for our children. And so when I think about that and I think about the challenges, I know that there are opportunities for solutions. And so even though it’s not necessarily every door is open and it’s just walking through because if it was, things would be so different. But I think there are so many people doing meaningful work and there are so many good ideas out there that are starting to have an impact and do have an impact. I think it’s one maintaining hope that things can change, things can be better and then also acknowledging that I don’t think there’s anyone that would wish harm to a child. With that in mind that shared agreement, I think we all hold, there are openings and ways to find common points of agreement. And also, when there isn’t doing what you have to do to get the best for our children because nothing less is worth it.

John: I’m also hopeful and I’m more hopeful now than before when I started this conversation. Thank God for you and the great work you’re doing, Angela. I really thank you for your time today for our listeners, viewers and readers to find Angela and her colleagues in the important work they’re doing at the Edible Schoolyard Project. Please go to www.edibleschoolyard.org. Angela McKee-Brown, the world needs more of you and I’m just grateful for all the work that you do and thank you for being a guest with us today on the Impact podcast.

Angela: Well, thank you so much. This was an absolutely fantastic conversation. I appreciate all your questions and thank you.

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